I am descend­ed from a most­ly Euro­pean blend of peo­ple, all of whom have lived in the South­ern Tip of Appalachia for hun­dreds of years. This area, the South­ern tip of Appalachia, includes the moun­tain­ous areas of West­ern North Car­oli­na, East Ten­nessee, North Geor­gia and even a lit­tle bit of the North­west cor­ner of South Car­oli­na.

Most of the peo­ple who set­tled in these areas had arrived in North Amer­i­ca in the ear­ly 1600s and 1700s, and gone there from the North­east­ern and South­ern ports in search of new lives, reli­gious free­dom, gold, and land. They met the local Indi­an tribes, fought and warred with them, and lat­er, some­times inter­mar­ried with them. They had a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent view of them that peo­ple who lived out­side the area. These peo­ple were, for the most part, farm­ers. They hunt­ed, farmed, went to church, mar­ried young and pro­duced babies. They most­ly lived off the land, and most­ly that was a good way to live, at least until there was a hard Win­ter, or a Sum­mer when the crops failed, or a bad round of the flu swept the area, killing off many mem­bers of the pop­u­la­tion. These peo­ple could have remained in this part of the coun­try, large­ly undis­cov­ered and undis­turbed except for the incur­sions of war, when some would be con­script­ed to fight for one cause or anoth­er. And they fought. They were fierce­ly patri­ot­ic, even when they were large­ly des­ti­tute, and bre­ly able to pro­vide for them­selves.

In the long run, though — sev­er­al hun­dred years — the trou­ble with liv­ing off the land in a remote and rugged area is that there tends to be no cush­ion. No way to lessen the blows of bad weath­er and bad luck. In the ear­ly part of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment came in and said the peo­ple need­ed help. They said that build­ing dams would stop sea­son­al flood­ing and pro­vide water in times of drought. That would at least bring some sea­son­al sta­bil­i­ty, and elec­tric­i­ty, to the area. It was con­sid­ered “progress,” despite the fact that it dis­placed hun­dreds of com­mu­ni­ties and thou­sands of peo­ple.

At about the same time, fac­to­ries and mills began mov­ing down from the North­east. So the fam­i­lies that had been dis­placed, and/or those that just need­ed to save the fam­i­ly farm, flocked to the fac­to­ries and mills for work, and ways to have a more sta­bile exis­tence. That’s what my grand­par­ents did.

They were part of an entire gen­er­a­tion that left the farms, either par­tial­ly or com­plete­ly, and moved into ready-made mill vil­lages. They got homes in exchange for work­ing t the mills. Homes with mort­gages that allowed them to even­tu­al­ly own the homes, and jobs in the mills that gave them the mon­ey to pay the afore-said mort­gages.

Life in large por­tions of South­ern Appalachia became defined by shift­work and pro­duc­tion quo­tas. Fam­i­lies grew, and par­ents made sure their chil­dren had places in the mills wait­ing for them when they fin­ished high school. It was a sim­ple life of sorts, not at all unlike farm life, except that it was gen­er­al­ly more sta­bile, more pre­dictable, and came with more com­forts, like insur­ance, com­pa­ny pic­nics, and over­time. Even the Great Depres­sion, when it hit the Unit­ed States, was some­what cush­ioned by the fact that the mills were busy turn­ing out prod­ucts for the Sec­ond Great War.

All that abun­dance that came in with the mills was not with­out its down­sides, though. Many mem­bers of the first gen­er­a­tion — the ones that had moved from the farms — con­tin­ued eat­ing and liv­ing like they had on the farms, despite liv­ing lives that, although per­haps no eas­i­er, were far more seden­tary. And that, plus habits like smok­ing and over eat­ing, even­tu­al­ly killed all but the most hearty mem­bers of that gen­er­a­tion — at least almost all the males. Heart dis­ease and clogged arter­ies, almost unheard of on the farm, claimed oth­er­wise healthy men in their fifties and six­ties.

Emphy­se­ma, brought on by smok­ing and the bad air in the mills, took more peo­ple, and can­cers, which prob­a­bly exist­ed, but no one knew what they were, took even more. The result was an entire gen­er­a­tion of wid­ows, all of whom lost their hus­bands to the “lifestyle” that was mill­work. That lifestyle, and the dan­gers inher­ent to it, con­tin­ued into the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. I lost my dad, and saw many of my par­ents’ friends and neigh­bors suc­cumb to the same health issues. It was not until my own gen­er­a­tion that med­ical advances solved some of the prob­lems, and health­i­er liv­ing (plus new drugs) solved more.

That was the good news. The down­side, for my gen­er­a­tion, the last of the baby boomers liv­ing and work­ing in South­ern Appalachia, was that the mills began clos­ing, and all the jobs began mov­ing over­seas. Once again, the moun­tain peo­ple faced tough eco­nom­ic times. And although the “ser­vice” indus­try has tak­en a bit of the bite out of the area’s eco­nom­ic depres­sion, it still suf­fers from high­er than usu­al unem­ploy­ment, low­er over­all edu­ca­tion, and low­er house­hold incomes. Mod­ern times and the twen­ty first cen­tu­ry have cre­at­ed more diver­si­ty among these peo­ple, but, to me, the over­all future out­look for many of them still appears grim. I hate to see it. Hate to see fam­i­ly and friends face a less than cer­tain future in times that are more com­plex than ever.

I have to won­der, what will be the next lifestyle rev­o­lu­tion for the peo­ples at the South­ern tip of Appalachia? Will it come as a large scale change as it did when fam­i­lies left Europe for Amer­i­ca, or when fam­i­lies left their farms for the mills? What does the future hold for that great, and unique part of the coun­try? And when will nature, humans, or human gov­ern­ment decide that it is once again time to inter­vene.…